We Didn’t Win to Have You Here: Activism after Victories in Children’s Lit

Yesterday, French voters went to the polls, and much of the rest of the world watched to see if France would go the way of the US and the UK—that is, toward increasingly isolationist, authoritarian, anti-immigrant governments.  In the end, the majority of voters rejected Marine Le Pen’s ultra-right views, electing Emmanuel Macron instead.  Macron is emphatically described as a centrist in just about every news profile of him; an investment banker who worked as economy minister for the socialist Prime Minister Manuel Valls, Macron is pledging to fight “the forces of division that undermine France” (http://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-39841707).  But he has never been elected to anything before, so it remains to be seen how—and if—he will be able to do that.  My first reaction to Macron’s victory was relief that France had not elected Le Pen.  My second was think of a children’s book that warned against the dangers of thinking that right-wing extremism could be ended by a change in regime.

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Anna, in Kerr’s text, came to love France–but not all the French people loved her “kind”.

The children’s book was one that first taught me, as a child myself, about grey areas in politics.  Holocaust literature in general remains popular with young readers because it is “real” history that ordinary children were involved in—and the good guys and bad guys, especially in the books I read as a child, are obvious.  While YA Holocaust literature was more nuanced about the badness of bad guys, books for the under-twelve set typically allied—well, the allies, with each other.  So the French, Dutch, and British were good, the Germans and Austrians were bad.  (And Jewish people typically were just that—Jewish, not British or German or anything else.)  But Judith Kerr’s semi-autobiographical When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit (1971) presented a more complicated picture—particularly of France.  France, in my nine-year-old understanding of the world, was full of good guys who had unfortunately been “overrun” by the evil Nazis in 1940.  Anna and her family end up in France—though neither as a first nor a last resort—after escaping from Nazi Germany soon after Hitler’s election.  A French newspaper employs Anna’s father, and Anna and her brother Max struggle as refugees to learn the language and fit in—but eventually, “going back to Paris felt more like going home than they would ever have thought possible” (148).  Unfortunately, it does not remain that way.  While many French people help Anna’s family, not all the French are “good guys”.  In fact, their landlady becomes increasingly difficult, eventually lashing out at them by saying, “Hitler knew what he was doing when he got rid of people like you!” (177) and, ominously, “The government should have had more sense than to let you into our country!” (177).  The landlady is French, but sympathizes with the Nazis—not after the fall of France, but several years before it.  My childhood understanding of history fell apart.

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In Carlson’s book, it is the children–not the adults or the institutions–that can see beyond race and build community.

But although my sense of history may have undergone some reorganization, I did not lose the belief that children could play a tangible role in bringing about social and cultural change, or that they could learn how to do this through books.  A less historical—though not by any means ahistorical—picture of French anti-racism can be found in an earlier book, written by American Natalie Savage Carlson who lived in Paris for several years.  A Brother for the Orphelines (1959) may seem, like A Bear Called Paddington, to be set outside time in the unpolitical world of childhood.  But Carlson’s book, published in the midst of the Algerian anti-colonial struggle against France, concerns the rescue of an Algerian orphan by the French orphelines from abandonment.  The well-intentioned orphelines bring the Algerian boy to a “world where the ceiling is leaking and the walls are falling in” (33) because the government doesn’t care about repairing the orphanage; and even the kind orphanage managers squabble over where the “dark-skinned” baby originated.  The orphelines, on the other hand, focus on community, defending their home and “feeling offended at the way the grown-ups were acting as if the baby were different because he was dark-skinned” (32).  Carlson’s text is not problem-free—there are typical orientalist descriptions of the adult Algerians, for one thing—but the orphelines see the Algerian baby as just another child who needs a safe and happy home, and take it upon themselves to secure one for all of them since they can see that the adults and institutions that surround them are either indifferent or prone to casual racism that would divide the orphans into “us” and “them,” deserving (white) children and undeserving (not-white and “foreign”) children.

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Centrist or no, Macron still governs a France that, at least in part, fears the flood at the door.

Kerr and Carlson wrote as adults, and Carlson especially created “ideal” children in her book; but that is not to say that real young people do not understand the consequences of nationalism tied to indifference and racism, whether institutional or individual.  In 1979, the community publisher Centerprise published teenager Savitri Hensman’s book of poems, Flood at the Door, which discusses the racist and anti-immigrant attitudes he faced in 1970s England.  One of these poems, “World War Two,” has echoes of the themes found in both Carlson’s and Kerr’s books.  Hensman writes, “‘We didn’t win to have you here,’/ You say, and flaunt the Union Jack” (8).  The separation between “we” and “you” is a false dichotomy, Hensman argues, when he writes in the next line, “But by your side we fought” (8).  A false dichotomy with real consequences; the poem that follows is about an Asian being stabbed and kicked to death by racists who tell him “to go back” (9) where he came from.  The police do nothing.

While Macron won, Le Pen still received a third of the votes cast.  And this means that while Macron argued that “France” won the election, there is another France that does not agree.  The France of Le Pen, like the right-wing extremist element in America or Britain, is not powerless to affect the day-to-day lives, or indeed the laws and policies, governing ordinary people in France.  That is why activists and children’s authors must continue to fight injustice no matter who is in power—because we didn’t win to have racists here.

May Day: Intersections between BAME Children’s Lit and Workers’ Parties

Today is International Workers’ Day in many countries across the world. It’s a holiday based on an American incident (the Haymarket Riot in 1886), although American celebrate their workers in September, and it’s always been promoted most by the political left: communists, socialists, and even anarchists have frequently staged marches (particularly across Europe) to promote workers’ rights. In the UK, May Day has been given a bank holiday (“early May Bank Holiday” on the first Monday of the month) since 1978. The timing was not accidental; whereas traditionally, May Day had been a festival of spring in the UK, the link with workers’ movements increased after WWII, and became particularly pronounced in Britain with the rise in strikes—especially miners’ strikes—in the early 1970s.

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In Leila Berg’s Fish and Chips for supper, the working class Dad has to worry about putting dinner on the table–but he doesn’t go on strike. Pictures by Richard Rose.

Mainstream children’s literature in the 1970s was still fairly middle class, although the occasional critic—Bob Dixon, Robert Leeson, Aidan Chambers for example—pointed out the missing working-class child in children’s literature. Leila Berg’s Nippers reading series for Macmillan and Aidan Chambers Topliners (also for Macmillan) are two of the series connected with mainstream publishers that tried to address this lack. But although the kids in Berg’s Nippers might have had Fish and Chips for Supper and some of the parents in Chambers’ Topliners were on the dole, these books generally did not depict a radical working class. More often, and in most cases deliberately, the working class families in these books saw Britain’s inequalities as the way things were. Racism (in both Nippers and Topliners) was confronted, but poverty, not so much.

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Brief mentions of Claudia Jones can be found in works for children, such as on Tayo Fatunla’s poster, Our Roots: Celebrating Black History, but full-length discussions of her feminism, anti-racism and community organization are rare.

It was left to independent publishers to not only talk about economic inequality, but highlight the links between race and class. By this I do not mean “if you are Black, then you are automatically poor,” but “people should fight all inequalities in society, because any inequality hurts us all.” This focus on multiple inequalities was something that BAME community leaders had always embraced. Trinidadian-born Claudia Jones, for example, edited the West Indian Gazette, a Black British newspaper, in Brixton; she once said that the Gazette’s “editorial stand is for a united, independent West Indies, full economic, social and political equality and respect for human dignity for West Indians and Afro-Asians in Britain, and for peace and friendship between all Commonwealth and world peoples” (interestingly, she wrote about this for Freedomways, an African-American journal, in 1964). Jones would later go on to found the Notting Hill Carnival, a celebration of West Indian culture in Britain. Despite Jones’s history of activism and community organization, her life is rarely celebrated in children’s history or biography texts.

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The photograph on the cover of Chris Searle’s All Our Words underscores the notion that ALL British kids matter.

But independent publishers did produce literature that celebrated a tradition of organizing for both workers’ and BAME people’s rights. Most notably, Young World Books (the children’s book division of the communist Liberation Press) highlighted the ways that workers and BAME people could—and did—work together in Britain and elsewhere. Chris Searle’s All Our Words (1986) begins with the line, “It is the ordinary people of this country that make our language” (1). Searle goes on to write essays about ordinary people, including miners, skinheads, Bengalis, Afro-Caribbeans, and East End Jews, using the writing of London schoolchildren who embrace “all our words” and all of London/England. The book includes poetry, short stories and plays written by British schoolchildren from many different backgrounds, as shown through the front cover. Searle emphasizes the ways that communities in Britain can unite and help each other; during the miners’ strike in 1984, “the harassed black communities in Britain reach[ed] out to the striking miners” (104) with money and support. British people should not allow those in power to divide and rule, but should band together in common cause.

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In Maggie Chetty’s Ring Around the Carnival, white and Pakistani Scottish people work together to fight racism

This message of communities helping each other was further reinforced by another Young World publication the following year, Ring Around the Carnival (1987) by Maggie Chetty and with illustrations by David Lockett. Ring Around the Carnival is the story of a Scottish mining community of both white and Pakistani British people who work together to foil a plot by the British White Power movement. The story is more than occasionally didactic; accepting a white miner’s lamp as a reward for her hard work at the end of the book, the main character comments, “I’m very pleased that we stopped the fascists . . . Raj has told me many times that we can do great things if we unite and work together” (72). But the message is not much different than that found in other children’s books—cooperation is a good thing—even if it has a decidedly political point of view.

Further evidence of attempts to unite different groups of people in protest can be found in the fact that Chris Searle dedicated his book to Blair Peach, the white British teacher and anti-racist protestor who was killed during a rally, probably by police (https://www.theguardian.com/uk/2010/apr/27/blair-peach-killed-police-met-report). Peach was part of the many multi-racial anti-fascist organizations that proliferated in the 1970s in response to the National Front and police oppression. Organizations such as Rock Against Racism brought together white skinheads and punks with dreadlocked Black British Rastafarians. Today these kind of alliances are once again visible throughout the world, as people of all communities react to a rise in anti-immigrant rhetoric, a lack of concern for BAME people’s rights, and fears about restrictions on women’s reproductive freedom and a disregard for truth and science. These concerns need to be represented in today’s children’s literature—and child readers today need to read about the history of community organization. I would love to see Cathhistorical novelist par extraordinaire, write about a character who—as she herself did—participated in Rock Against Racism. Or see Verna Wilkins write a biography of Claudia Jones that includes her feminism as well as her anti-racism and community organization. Injustice to some people is an injustice to all, and on May Day we should think about how to teach our children this.

Panther Cubs? The Black Panthers and Children’s Literature

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This week, Artlyst announced that Tate Modern will be holding a summer exhibition on the art of American Black Power (http://www.artlyst.com/previews/american-black-power-explored-new-tate-summer-exhibition/). Tate Britain’s display of photographs, Stan Firm Inna Inglan, has already begun (http://www.tate.org.uk/visit/tate-britain/display/walk-through-and-spotlight/stan-firm-inna-inglan-black-diaspora-london), and the photograph used on the website about the exhibition by Colin Jones has the phrase Black Power prominently displayed. It is a pity that these two exhibitions are not more obviously linked, but the artistic and cultural adult world in general has been thinking back to the Black Power/Black Panthers era with increasing frequency (including a recent programme on Sky on the British Black Panthers). Children’s literature on the other hand, as I’ve pointed out in other blogposts, tends to avoid images of violence or aggression, especially if either is directed toward the dominant white power structure. So while photos of white people shouting at young African-Americans going to school or police officers threatening Black citizens are common in children’s books about this era, pictures of Black people taking control of a situation aggressively are not. In fact, most recent children’s books that include the Black Panthers go out of their way to take the claws out of the cat, as it were.

Colin Jones The Black House, 571 Holloway Road, London 1976, printed 2012 Tate. Gift Eric and Louise Franck London Collection 2016 © Colin Jones Digital Image courtesy of Autograph ABP  Photo by Colin Jones.

As with books about more radical individuals in the Civil Rights and Black Power era, such as Malcolm X and Claudia Jones, there aren’t many that exclusively address the Black Panthers. In fact, try this fun game: type “Black Panthers” into Amazon’s children’s book search (US or UK) and see what comes up. Yes, there are more books about the animal than there are about the movement—a lot more. I went to the library to see if perhaps I could find older books. Most books in the section about African-Americans started with slavery and ended with civil rights (minus the Black Panthers/Black Power) with nothing much inbetween, as if African Americans ceased to exist in the hundred years between the two periods. Civil Rights book covers were telling; the most common cover image for these books was of African-Americans singing, often as part of a multiracial and harmonious group. To be acceptable, Black people must generally appear to be non-threatening to white people.

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Civil rights is often portrayed as harmonious–literally–in children’s lit.

Some of the books on Civil Rights do mention Black Power or the Black Panthers, but carefully. Casey King’s and Linda Barrett-Osborne’s Oh, Freedom! Kids talk about the Civil Rights Movement with the people who made it happen (Scholastic 1998), which also has a cover illustration of singing African-American children, nonetheless includes a remarkably frank exchange between Menelik Coates and his former Black Panther father Paul. Menelik begins by asking his dad if he was “in charge of all the guns”; his father is quick to respond that Black Panthers “rarely carried guns openly” although they did have them in their homes, and that the main focus was uplifting Black communities. Paul Coates may admire Huey Newton for calling police “pigs,” but he concludes his interview with his son by saying, “It’s not about blacks wanting to be superior or treat anyone badly. It’s simply a way for us to be equal in this world”. It is unclear whether this interview is a transcription of an actual event, or if the book’s authors edited or organized the questions and responses, but the interview seems to be designed to both acknowledge and deny the connection between Black Panthers and violence.

This way of beginning with the potential for violence and ending with a peaceful message is common in children’s books. Lori Mortensen’s Voices of the Civil Rights Movement (Capstone 2015) has a chapter on Malcolm X (unsurprisingly titled “By Any Means Necessary”) which begins with Malcolm X quoted calling Martin Luther King Jr a “fool” but which ends with a very different quotation where X says, “Dr. King wants the same thing I want—freedom!” In order to introduce controversial figures—whether famous or not—children’s books remove any threat the individuals might pose. In the end, Mortensen’s book suggests, the radical Malcolm X came around to the viewpoint of non-violence held by Dr. King—a portrayal that at best smooths over the truth, and at worst is a gross misrepresentation of Malcolm X’s viewpoints.

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They were pals, really–and Malcolm X in children’s books has to learn that MLK jr is right. From Lori Mortensen’s Voices of the Civil Rights Movement.

Even when a children’s text mentions the aggression associated with the Black Panthers and Black Power, it is often euphemized, countered or contradicted by other elements of the text. Rebecca Rissman’s The Black Power Movement (Core 2014) uses both softening techniques and textual design to deflect any inference that violence or direct opposition to government and institutional policies had a positive effect on power gained by African-Americans. Like other texts, the Rissman description begins with the “strong actions” taken to achieve change, but concludes that “the majority of black power movement activities were nonviolent” (27), again both acknowledging and denying Black Panther militancy. The chapter title, however, refutes the idea that strong action was successful; and the photographic illustration shows African-Americans looting and rioting after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr (which can only indirectly be connected to either Black Power or the Black Panthers). The people in the photograph do not appear powerful; rather, the opposite. The book’s design has the overall effect of raising doubt about the efficacy of Black Power and Black Panthers as positive forces within and for the African-American community on the very page it discusses their “strong” actions.

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Were the Black Panthers “strong” if they caused people to act like this? Textual design guides the reader to think not. From Rebecca Rissman’s The Black Power Movement.

The embrace of non-violence by authors of books about Black Power may seem just the result of the intended audience for these books; children are not “supposed” to read about violence, ostensibly because it might frighten them. Children’s nonfiction, however, often includes violence, aggression and damage to government property; just look at any text about the American Revolution. The Boston Tea Party is not portrayed as colonists looting private property, and the minutemen (who never, by the way, feed any children breakfast) are not brought round to peacefully protesting the monarchy. In England, Guy Fawkes Day is a holiday, but there aren’t any kids’ books (that I know of) about the Bradford Twelve. The fact that children’s books portray Black Panthers/Black Power organizations as either violent but ineffectual or initially violent but later allied with/embracing non-violence suggests that the author’s/publisher’s motive has more to do with their own fears than that of the child reader’s, and their need to ensure that readers dismiss the potential attraction of power for oppressed people found in movements like the Black Panthers.

Many Happy Returns in a Book: Who gets to have a birthday in children’s lit?

Illustrations from Kay’s Birthday Numbers Book by Verna Wilkins, Illustrated by Elaine Mills.

Today is my birthday. I mention this because it is so completely normal (I have one every year!). And yet this normal ordinary thing is something that for a long time, at least in books, excluded many children. I think about my childhood reading—I (still!) know when Jo March’s, Anne Shirley’s, and Betsy Ray’s birthdays are. I read about numerous animals having birthdays, including Curious George, Little Bear, and Frances the Badger. Amelia Bedelia and Mister Muster had birthdays. But I never read about an African, an African-American, an American Indian, an Asian American or a Latinx child having a birthday when I was growing up. In fact, everything about birthdays, from cake toppers to birthday cards underscored the normality of being white.

Betsy Ray’s birthday in pictures by Lois Lenski, stories by Maud Hart Lovelace.

This privileging of whiteness that permeates the culture can seem innocuous because it is so apparently normal. But birthdays especially are connected with valuing individuals, celebrating and recognizing a person’s uniqueness and worth through gift-giving and the setting aside of time to honor that person. We take it for granted, but think about what it means to be sung to (really: how often does someone sing to YOU, sing ABOUT you?), fed your favorite foods made by someone just for you, given tributes through words and presents specially selected. Take a moment and think about all of that. Then think what it means to be perennially placed on the sidelines of such a celebration, to never feel like such an honor belongs to you?

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Not everyone gets to be A Little Princess on her birthday.

Historically, British children’s literature did not really recognize other-than-white people as having birthdays. Sarah Crewe had a giant birthday party at Miss Minchin’s, and even Becky, the child-maid who was one step away from starving in the streets gave her a birthday present. But would anyone find out when Ram Dass’s birthday was? Not in the book, anyway. Often, characters meant to represent Black people (such as the Golliwog—a much more common figure in British children’s literature throughout the first half of the 20th century than actual Black people) were not only NOT being celebrated, they were the entertainment. This “Golly” character from a paperboard shape book (and if anyone can date this for me, I’d be grateful; there are some things that the British Library just does not count as “books”) is the juggler, tightrope walker AND the magician at the Panda’s party—but he still brings a gift as well.

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Everyone else is a guest at the party, but Golly must earn his place by performing.

The lack of birthday representation for Black British children was one of the specific absences that Verna Wilkins set out to redress when she created her first books for Tamarind Press in the late 1980s. Kay’s Birthday Numbers Book was designed as an early reader for schools, which originally came with a triangular number puzzle and a set of story sequence cards. But though early literacy and numeracy was important to Wilkins, equally important was presenting Black British children enjoying the same privileges and celebrations as their white British counterparts. In Wilkins’ book, “normal” includes being the birthday princess, but also receiving birthday cards with Black people on them.

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Wilkins’ Finished Being Four, illustrated by Claire Pound, also has the traditional British birthday feast.

A similar ethos guides her later book, Finished Being Four (1992), a trade picture book about four children in a class who share birthdays in the same week and so also share a party. The birthday feast is full of traditional British party food, including cocktail sausages, quiche, jelly, jam tarts and swiss roll—as well as a birthday cake, of course. Some criticized Wilkins for erasing cultural references (in Finished Being Four one of the mothers wears a sari but there are no Indian sweets on the birthday table, and no indication that any culture celebrates birthdays any differently than the British) but for Wilkins, at least when she began, having Black characters experience the same birthday celebrations as white characters was part of the point.

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Lorraine Simeon’s Marcellus has lost his dreadlocks in Marcellus’ Birthday Cake. Illustrations by Petra Rohr-Rouendaal.

Other British children’s books published during the early nineties similarly used a birthday celebration to emphasize the normality of Black British existence. Interestingly, Lorraine Simeon’s sequel to Marcellus, a book about a boy with dreadlocks who is afraid he’ll be made fun of at school, is Marcellus’ Birthday Cake, where the title character attempts to make his own birthday cake. While Marcellus depicts a potential outsider gaining acceptance despite his difference in appearance, Marcellus’ Birthday Cake does not even hint at Marcellus being an outsider—he has even lost his locks. It is hard to tell if this is what Simeon intended (she did not illustrate either book, and both of my editions were published in America, so perhaps the British editions are different). Nonetheless, it is perhaps unsurprising that Simeon’s birthday book has an almost-studied “normality” about it.

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The birthday feast in Jennifer Northway’s Lucy’s Quarrel is the same as ever, but the birthday cake is unique.

Jennifer Northway’s Lucy books are really Lucy and Alice books, because they tell about the often quarrelsome, often loving relationship between Lucy and her cousin Alice. But the books are titled after Lucy, who has a Black British mother and a white British father, rather than white British Alice. Nonetheless, Lucy’s life as depicted in Lucy’s Quarrel is remarkably similar to her cousin’s; both live in middle-class houses, go to ballet class, attend the same school, and go to the fun fair. Lucy’s birthday cake is the sole distinguishing feature about her party that reminds the reader of her Black British heritage. Unlike the plain cakes depicted in all the other Black British books, Lucy has a ballerina cake (I had one of these when I was four too), and the ballerina is brown.

There is a tension in picture books depicting Black British child birthdays; on the one hand, authors are deliberately representing and making central the characters who were formerly either invisible or on the sidelines at birthday parties. On the other hand, other than their brown skin, these characters often have little to mark them out from white British characters. We all should be allowed to have a happy birthday—and see people like us in books doing the same—but do we really all have to have the same kind of birthday to be seen as “normal”?

In Color: Photographic Images and BAME Children in Literature

This week, Kendall Jenner and Pepsi became embroiled in a controversy over an ad that depicted Ms. Jenner joining a protest march (after ditching her blonde wig—an interesting detail for thinking about issues of how race is presented). Jenner and Pepsi were mocked by multiple individuals and organizations for co-opting protest movements such as Black Lives Matter for commercial reasons (not that they are the first to ever do such things—would you Like to Buy the World a Coke?) and for suggesting that good relations between police and protestors could be achieved with a can of pop (you can see the ad here and judge for yourself: http://www.bing.com/videos/search?q=Kendall+Jenner+Pepsi+ad&&view=detail&mid=6648928C17BBA4A303386648928C17BBA4A30338&FORM=VRDGAR). Even Bernice King, the daughter of Martin Luther King, Jr., commented on the ad on Twitter, saying, “If only Daddy would have known about the power of Pepsi” (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2017/04/06/martin-luther-kings-daughter-gives-perfect-response-kendall/).

 Perhaps Pepsi we thinking of the success of another pop advertisement that co-opted teenage movements–image from the 1971 commercial wanting to bring peace and love through buying the world a Coke.

One of the frequent commentaries on the advert was the suggestion that perhaps if Pepsi had involved the Black community (or the Muslim community, or the Asian community, or any community) not just in the making of the commercial but in its conception that someone, somewhere would have said, hey, maybe this isn’t a good idea. People in a position of privilege (often from the dominant, which is to say white, group) should be aware that diversity is not something (blond-wigged Kendall) that can be put on or taken off; it requires a deep and regular commitment in listening to people from BAME communities, even if what they are saying is not always comfortable or familiar.

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Roxy Harris’s Being Black showed Black Panthers, but no guns . . .

Following several incidents in the late 1970s and early 1980s in the UK, to which BAME communities responded by protesting (both peacefully and, in the case of the Brixton Riot of 1981, not so peacefully) against the unjust oppression of the state, there was a rise in photographic picture books depicting BAME people. Some, primarily for older readers, tried to document the struggles of Black people, both in and out of the UK. For example, Roxy Harris’s Being Black (1981), which excerpted Black Panthers George Jackson’s Soledad Brother and Eldridge Cleaver’s Soul on Ice and combined the extracts with questions and commentary for young people. Harris, in the introduction, writes, “In Britain, blacks have been generally absent from the mainstream newspapers, as well as from TV and radio programmes. As a consequence, they have grown accustomed to being swamped by white commentators’ interpretations and definitions of the black political, economic, social and cultural experience” (4). The book is illustrated with photographs, and the choice of those photographs is telling. Not one picture of armed Black Panthers—the common image in the media. Although several protests are shown in the book, the only one depicting the Black Power salute includes both white and Black people. Harris’s book is a deliberate attempt to change the image of Black Power and Black Panthers through photographs, without diminishing the power of the Black community as an irritant to white power structures.

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. . . Harris did depict the Black Power salute, but rather than using it to isolate or “other” Black people, Black Power is shown as something that white people, particularly young people, agreed that Black people should have.

For younger readers, photographic picture books often provided a similar antidote to media images of BAME communities—not with regard to protests, but in terms of everyday living. The Peckham Publishing Project, a community-based publisher, produced several photographic books that challenged media images of BAME people as foreigners or outsiders who did not want to accept “British values” or a British way of life. One of these was the wordless Our Kids (1984), which depicted ordinary activities of British BAME families. Although there are no protests, as in Being Black, Our Kids nonetheless counters stereotypes about BAME families and about education in BAME communities. The book depicts involved fathers, parents reading to their children, and BAME professionals (such as doctors) working in their communities.

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Peckham Publishing Project’s Our Kids shows BAME professionals working in their communities.

Being Black and Our Kids come from projects initiated by BAME communities themselves, but that is not to say that white people cannot participate in redefining the dominant media images of minority communities if they are committed to spending time in and with those communities. Joan Solomon, a photographer and creative writer, grew up in South Africa under apartheid; while she lived there, she taught creative writing to Black students in Soweto. She left South Africa and came to London, where in 1978 she began teaching English as a foreign language to immigrant communities. She also began producing children’s books, first for Hamish Hamilton and then for Evans, about life in Britain for BAME children. In these books, Solomon challenges stereotypes about BAME communities primarily through her images. The cover of the 1978 A Day by the Sea (Hamish Hamilton), for example, puts a Black child on a very obviously British (rather than Caribbean) beach, digging with a spade. The opening image of Sweet-Tooth Sunil (Evans 1984) has the title character standing in front of a British fireplace-converted-to-an-electric heater, with Indian sweets and Hindu images on the table in front of him. Both photographs are powerful images, placing BAME people as an everyday part of British society, not as exotic and/or temporary interlopers. By taking the time to go into the homes of BAME British families and talking with them—the book’s publication page thanks the family portrayed in the book “for their hospitality and generous help”—Solomon avoids one of the common problems of multicultural texts of this era, that of deciding between presenting only the “foreignness” of people or erasing all cultural markers to allow BAME people to “belong” in British society.

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A very British home: Joan Solomon’s books show BAME families as a part of Britain’s everyday life, without eliding their cultural uniqueness. From Sweet-Tooth Sunil.

Images are powerful, and images that portray people through film or photographs have a way of suggesting truth—especially when they are repeated in the media over and over. Pepsi has apologized for its “misstep” with its Kendall Jenner advertisement. The company said it was “trying to project a global message of unity, peace and understanding,” which is of course not a bad thing. But you can’t impose global understanding without trying to understand the people you want to reach.

Black Gold: What a Black Bookstore Can Be and Do

Last week I was in the UK on various projects, and on my last day before returning to Buffalo, I went to New Beacon bookstore in Finsbury Park. Originally when I had planned my visit, I thought it would be my last time, as the bookstore was set to close after its 50th anniversary. However, thanks to a populist campaign, the bookstore has raised enough money to revamp itself (see Natasha Onwuemezi’s article in the Bookseller: http://www.thebookseller.com/news/swell-support-new-beacon-books-helps-raise-10k-513551); it plans a new storefront, a different layout, and most importantly, more room and plans for community space and activities. I’m looking forward to going back with some of my postgraduate students in July to see how it is all coming along.

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Educational essays by writers such as Gus John are not usually available at your local bookstore–unless that bookstore is one like New Beacon.

But of course this reprieve did not stop me from a few (ahem) purchases, especially since, in order to make room for new stock, they were selling off some of their old stock at deep discounts. New Beacon is not primarily a children’s bookstore, but they have throughout my relationship with them furnished my shelves with many gems. This is partly because of founder John La Rose’s connection with the supplementary school movement. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Black British children (especially boys) were being placed into ESN (educationally sub-normal) classrooms or excluded from school altogether at an alarming rate. John La Rose, like other activists, tried to counter the effects of this travesty. He did this partly through supporting and publishing educational experts in the Black community, including Bernard Coard and Gus John (and I found a couple of Gus John’s essays at the bookstore this time).

But La Rose was also one of a number of Black British and West Indian activists who began supplementary after- or Saturday school programs, where kids could learn basic skills as well as Black history that the mainstream schools ignored. I have purchased many basic reading texts here over the years that feature Black characters, some from traditional publishers such as Macmillan Caribbean or the Evans English Readers, who had branches in Africa or the Caribbean. These readers were imported specifically by many supplementary and mainstream schools who wanted to be sure that their children found mirrors that reflected them in the books they read.  The one I found this time (above) is from Sierra Leone; the illustrator is Tom Simpasa.

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Independently published stories range in quality, from pamphlets stapled together to hardcover books; but all need independent outlets like New Beacon to provide a market.

Other reading texts came from independent and community publishers, such as Centreprise, the Peckham Publishing Project, or the one I found this time from a group called Brockwell Books. Often these books were “home-made” in quality, created by teachers or even by the students themselves. These are not the kinds of books that are found in mainstream bookstores, or even in places like the British Library—their fragile nature means that few exist anymore, making New Beacon a critical resource. I also found a book of poetry, written by a 14-year-old British Bangladeshi girl, Faryal Mirza, and published in 1987 to an unusually high standard for a self-published book. It still has its original dust jacket, with the photograph of Mirza looking seriously out of glasses she probably would prefer to forget now.

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This book, published by New Beacon Press, “is intended for use in schools and colleges or for individual and collective study.”

At New Beacon I’ve also found Black history, both older works published by New Beacon, such as Roxy Harris’s Being Black (complete with study questions and vocabulary), and more recent works of the kind that too quickly go out of print. This is one of the key features of an independent bookstore like New Beacon—books that either never reach the mainstream chains or are only available for a few months are much easier to obtain at an independent bookstore. Clive Gifford’s The Empire Windrush (Colllins Big Cat: 2014), Errol Lloyd’s Celebrating Black History (Oxford Reading Tree 2007) and Dan Lyndon’s Resistance and Abolition (Franklin Watts 2014) are all still available, but have you ever seen them in a bookshop? I found all three on Saturday.

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Black History texts such as these go out of print quickly–and often are not replaced by anything else.

New Beacon also had books that preserve and teach history in other ways. For example, I bought one of photographer Joan Solomon’s beautiful multicultural books from her The Way We Live series, first published in the 1980s. Sweet-Tooth Sunil is a story of a British family celebrating Diwali; other books in the series include Sikh, Jewish, Caribbean, Chinese, and Japanese families.

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Solomon did a series of photo picture books in Britain’s multicultural communities.

And finally, I bought books that I’ve been meaning to pick up for some time, before they disappear completely (and other than used book sites, New Beacon is the only place I’ve ever seen them). The independent publisher Verna Wilkins produced a series at Tamarind around the turn of this century called “Black Profiles” that showcased Black Britons who had achieved success in their fields despite any setbacks they may have encountered. These books were meant to inspire young Black Britons to do the same, and the books covered a wide range of people. When Tamarind became a subsidiary of Penguin Random House, the Black Profiles series was revamped, changed from a hardcover series with watercolor illustrations designed for the library market to a trade paperback series for the general market, with cover photographs instead of illustrations. The PRH version was perhaps more appealing to the young reader, but one of the editorial decisions made about the revamped series was to change the name, from Black Profiles to Black Stars. This new name made a subtle allusion to Black History, but it also meant that successful figures like the surgeon Samantha Tross disappeared from the series. New Beacon had both for sale.

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Verna Wilkins of Tamarind published the Black Profiles series before the company was bought out by Penguin Random House.

I’m delighted that New Beacon will remain open, even if the changes they make may mean I won’t find quite so many older treasures. It will nonetheless remain one of the few places in Britain where you can find children’s books for and about BAME people in every imaginable category and by every kind of writer. And that is something that everyone in Britain (and outside it) should celebrate.

The Love U Give is Needed: Angie Thomas and Black Lives Matter

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The cover of Angie Thomas’s novel, whose title comes from Tupac Shakur. Cover art by Debra Cartwright.

 

Black Lives Matter began as a Twitter hashtag, in response to the acquittal of George Zimmerman, who shot young African-American teenager Trayvon Martin in 2013. Two further deaths the following year, of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and of Eric Garner in New York City, both at the hands of police officers, brought the movement to the streets. While the greater majority of BLM protests have been peaceful, that is not to say that they haven’t been angry, and much of their anger has been directed at police officers involved in the deaths of African-Americans, mostly African-American men. The police and their supporters have been frequently critical of BLM members, and have also formed their own group, Blue Lives Matter.

This is the briefest of histories of a major movement, about which whole books could be written—and it is in fact on one of these books that I want to focus, rather than on the movement itself. The past month saw the publication of the long-anticipated debut young adult novel from Angie Thomas, The Hate U Give. Although it has been called “the Black Lives Matter novel” by the press, the organization is not mentioned in the novel. Angie Thomas says she was inspired by the movement, but isn’t affiliated with it (http://www.mtv.com/news/2991910/qa-angie-thomas-on-the-hate-u-give-black-lives-matter-and-writing-an-unapologetic-black-girl-book/). Her distance from the movement is nonetheless not distancing; it allows Thomas to depict a variety of complex characters with equally complex motivations.

This is most obvious in her main character, 16-year-old Starr Carter, who starts the novel living two separate Black lives: one in Garden Heights, a drug- and gang-plagued African-American neighborhood, and one at the posh prep school, Williamson High, she attends across town, where she is one of two African-Americans in her grade. She thinks of “Williamson Starr” as “normal Starr” (71): “Williamson Starr holds her tongue when people piss her off so nobody will think she’s the ‘angry black girl.’ Williamson Starr is approachable” (71)—by which she means, approachable to white people who, Thomas subtly infers, even Starr sees as the “norm”. Early on in the book, she is able to “flip a switch” in her brain to become the appropriate Starr for the appropriate setting. But her ability to do this begins to fail as the order of the world around her also falls apart. Her former best friend Khalil is killed in front of her (not a spoiler, as this is on the blurb describing the book); Starr has dealt with shooting deaths before, but her friend Natasha, also killed in front of her, did not die a second death at the hands of the police and the press. Khalil, on the other hand, is turned into “a drug dealer and a gangbanger,” as one white character puts it, “Somebody was gonna kill him eventually” (341). It is at this point that Starr realizes that not only is “being two different people . . . so exhausting” (301), it’s wrong. Wrong for herself, and wrong for the people she loves.

The person she thinks she has to be is “angry black girl,” but Angie Thomas does not let her character off the hook so easily. Being the opposite of Williamson Starr means pushing away people who want to help, including her white boyfriend Chris. Chris is a figure of fun at times, especially for Starr’s brother and father, but Thomas gives him a stubborn will to help, even participating in a protest that turns into a riot, that convinces Starr that white people are not the enemy. Neither are the cops, at least not in a body; Starr is at first angry at them all, including her Uncle Carlos, but he stands up for her to the point of taking a beating and being suspended. Thomas argues through her depictions that it isn’t how you look or what you wear, but the actions that you take or don’t take that make you a good person or an enemy.

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Penn State student Zaniya Joe during a Black Lives Matter protest (photo by Nabil Mark from Penn State’s State Press). Angie Thomas seeks to take the tape off the mouths of young people and give them their greatest weapon: a voice.

And acting out of love is something in Thomas’s book that happens, not just between individuals, but between an individual and the community. Here again, the message is complex. Starr’s mother wants to, and eventually convinces Starr’s father that they should, move out of Garden Heights for the safety of Starr and her siblings. Starr’s father initially thinks this is a betrayal of the Black community, but the conclusion of the book—which I won’t give away—has him realizing that betrayal can happen within the community, and “We ain’t gotta live there to change things, baby. We just gotta give a damn” (436). Starr—now neither Williamson Starr nor Garden Heights Starr—gains both the ability to act out of love and use a “weapon” (410); her weapon is not a gun, or tear gas, but the “biggest weapon” of all: her voice. Thomas’s book indicts no group wholesale (not police, and not all drug dealers either), but does argue that young people have a choice to make between love and hate. In order to honor the dead, and help the living, the love you give through visible, audible action is needed. The love you give matters.